Friday, May 27, 2011


Viborg Castle

In the fall of 1937 my Mother drove with me from Helsingfors (Helsinki) to Finnish Karelia. Do I hear you protest that I am not that old? OK, let’s not quibble about words. Though still unborn, I was conceived so I consider myself a bona fide passenger on this trip. Mother would talk about special landmarks as we passed by them. I have difficulty recalling exactly what she said, my memory being notoriously bad, but I recall the trip well since she often reminisced about this journey later in life. Oral transmission is important, and nowhere more so than in Karelia – a country in which tales are told and retold through the ages. It now exists mainly in old peoples’ memories, in literature and in Jean Sibelius’ stirring Karelia Suite (1893).

Early in 1937, my parents were stationed in Helsingfors, where Father was paid to serve in the Swedish Legation and Mother was not. The picture shows the view of the Market Square (Salutorget, Kauppatori) from our apartment in the Legation as captured in 1938 by a young artist, Tove Jansson, later known as the originator of Mumin Troll stories and drawings. 

Tove Jansson's Helsinki

Mother’s trip to Karelia was no doubt one of the standard introduction-to-Finland-tours for newly arrived diplomatic families. Viborg (Viipuri) was a natural first stop on such a tour. With a population of 80,000 it was then Finland’s second largest city and its cultural capital. Mother fondly recalled its cosmopolitan atmosphere where hospitable Bergsråd and Kommerseråd received her. Founded in 1293 by the Swedish Regent and Marshal Torkel Knutsson, Viborg was a corner stone of the Finnish-Swedish Realm for four centuries. When Finland became a sovereign state in December 1917, Viborg was the administrative capital of Karelia.

Torkel Knutsson
From Viborg Mother and I travelled on to Sordavala (Sortavala) on the northern coast of Lake Ladoga, the largest Lake in Europe. There we took a boat to visit the renowned Greek Orthodox Monastery on the island of Valamo. We returned via the Karelian Isthmus stopping at many small towns en route before arriving at the legendary long sandy beaches in Terijoki, only 30 km from Leningrad. The hot summer that year contributed to rich harvests and crowded beaches. The heat stored in the Bay of Finland on one side of the Isthmus and in Lake Ladoga on the other, made the autumn exceptionally warm. Many visitors and residents remember this Karelian summer and autumn as special.

Following the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact of August 23 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 29 1939 and occupied the three Baltic States. The fiercest fighting of the Winter War (concluded on March 12 1940) and of the Continuation War (1941-44) took place on the Karelian Isthmus. Finland ensured its existence as a sovereign nation but at great cost in blood and treasure. More than 50 000 Finnish soldiers were killed and in the peace treaty the country was forced to cede inter alia Karelia with Viborg to the USSR. The country lost some of its best farmland and the peace terms compelled about 400 000 people to leave Karelia for Finland. Karelia became a waste land, haunted by bloody battlefields and sorrowful memories.

The bombs falling on Helsingfors came closer to the Legation, located close to several strategic targets. So my elder sister and I were evacuated to Stockholm, where a photographer from Stockholms Tidningen captured us disembarking with our cousin Inga. Mother and Father stayed on in Helsingfors until the end of the Winter War. Father was then posted to Canada, where he came to protect Finnish interests as a belligerent during the War of Continuation (Varpu Lindström (2000). Mother spoke warmly of her years in Finland (Ruth W. Wijkman, “The Story of my Finnish leg”, The Des Moines Register, November 15, 1998). She spoke often and fondly of our pre-war trip to Karelia.

My sister and I arriving in Stockholm
Two refugees from Finnish Karelia, Anna and Saga, joined us later in Canada. They created a small Karelian atmosphere at home. Anna taught me that the proper way to prepare whitefish (sik) was to place it in the coals of the fireplace wrapped in a damp copy of Hufvudstadsbladet, no other newspaper would do. Saga had a strength that surpassed that of Pippi Långstrump and would raise a chair by clasping her wrist around one of its legs at floor level. Try it! I bet you can’t! She would also drop a pointed knife (the legendary puukko) from one yard’s height onto the veins of her clenched left wrist and catch it on the rebound. Don’t try it! Saga entertained my younger sisters by sewing black thread under her skin and taught me how to swear in Finnish.

In addition to Finnish and Swedish, Anna and Saga spoke some Russian. This multilingualism was common in linguistically mixed Karelia. When in a good mood, they would call me Punapää (Finnish for red head). When I annoyed them, they called me Krasnavalojski Tjort (Russian for red-headed devil).

While not wishing to exaggerate this Karelian connection, it disposed me favourably. I shared this disposition with my friend and former colleague, the renowned photographer Emil Ems, whose late wife had grown up in Lumivaara, a little village just south of Sordavala. So Emil and I decided to visit Karelia to revive old memories and to see what seventy years of USSR/Russian rule had done. He has graciously allowed me to use his pictures to illustrate the blog (he keeps full ownership rights to these pictures). 

We packed the car with old maps, old books and Emil’s camera and drove it onto the overnight ferry to Finland in Stockholm’s harbour. As it headed east that Nordic summer evening, many questions filled our heads. Had seventy years of communist rule turned Karelia into a waste land? Could we find the stones that once marked the Eastern border of the Finnish-Swedish Realm? Had the Soviet Union erased the place names and buildings that recalled its Finnish past? What traces remained of the cultural explosion in literature and architecture that had occurred in Karelia in the inter-war period? Who cared for the past anyway?

Leaving Stockholm Harbour

We awoke the next morning in Finland. With curiosity and apprehension we headed the car east to the Russian border, following Mother’s itinerary seventy years before. Ahead of us lay a country that was no more but which we were determined to rediscover.